Staking claims on territories
By Michael Richardson, For The Straits Times
ONE of the roles of China's military is to enforce the country's claims to land territory, sea space, fisheries and ocean-bed energy and mineral resources.
These claims are disputed with neighbouring states in a zone stretching from China's mountainous border with India to the three seas off its coast - the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea.
A wave of nationalism has accompanied Beijing's attempts to recover areas it says were illegally taken from it when the country was weak. But China appears to have forgotten one of the fundamental laws of physics - for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As a rising China asserts what it regards as its rights, countries affected push back, often by joining forces.
Japan is looking to its American ally for support in case an increasingly acrimonious dispute with China over the Senkaku islands and surrounding waters in the East China Sea turns violent.
But in the South China Sea, where Beijing's claims to control cover a far greater area, Asean states are wary of provoking a confrontation with Beijing, though increasingly worried about China's posture in the area.
The latest reaction came last Friday in New York at only the second summit meeting between the leaders of Asean and the United States. US President Barack Obama and his Asean counterparts issued a joint statement that spoke of the partnership being elevated to a 'strategic level'.
The statement issued at the end of the summit did not mention China or the South China Sea. Instead it 'reaffirmed the importance of regional peace and stability, maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and other international maritime laws, and the peaceful settlement of disputes'.
Beijing says it has 'indisputable' sovereignty over as much as 80 per cent of the South China Sea. Other claimants to all or part of this vast zone include Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
While there have been no serious armed clashes in the South China Sea for years, China and some other claimants have garrisoned some of the disputed Spratly Islands and have been building up their military presence in the region.
This is despite a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea agreed by Asean member states and China in 2002 in which claimants agreed to 'exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability'.
The declaration is voluntary, although Asean has been urging China to negotiate a legally binding accord.
Earlier this year, senior US officials said they were told by their Chinese counterparts that Beijing now regards its South China Sea claims as one of its 'core national interests', on a par with Tibet and Taiwan. The implication was clear: that China reserved the right to use force to recover lost territory.
Even before the Asean-US Summit, Beijing tried to put pressure on the participants. A Chinese spokesman said last week that the South China Sea disputes were a matter only for China and the countries directly involved. Other countries should stay out.
In an obvious reference to the US, she said that foreign intervention 'will only complicate rather than help solve the issue'.
Yet across Asia, China's attempts to throw its weight around are proving to be counterproductive, prompting key Asian countries to respond by aligning their interests and engaging the US as a counterbalance.
All of these nations have developed extensive commercial ties with China and would much prefer not to put these trade, investment and tourism links at risk. But the scope of China's land and sea claims is now causing widespread concern in Asia.
Both Japan and South Korea are strengthening their previously languishing alliances with the US to balance what they see as an increasingly assertive China.
Another US ally, the Philippines, is looking to the US and Asean for support, as is Vietnam. Last month, Vietnam held its first defence talks with its former Indochina war enemy, the US.
India's Defence Minister A.K. Antony has been in Washington this week with a high-level delegation for talks with top US officials on ways to expand India-US security cooperation.
'We want to develop friendly relations with China,' Mr Antony said earlier this month.
'However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that China has been improving its military and physical infrastructure (in areas close to India). In fact, there has been an increasing assertiveness on the part of China.'
Some Chinese military analysts have accused Washington of orchestrating an increasingly tight encirclement of China in a bid to contain its growing power.
But if hedging against a potentially belligerent China is what these analysts have in mind, then China has largely itself to blame.
The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.